In brief: Pilot steers future of conveyancing

We are forever being bombarded with portentous statements about how our world is changing, how we live in a technological age and how those of us who do not adapt our philosophies and systems will be cast adrift.

The future involvement of technology in conveyancing is a certainty rather than a probability. But from my own experience taking part in the National Land Information Service (NLIS) pilot scheme, this is to be viewed with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.

The service allows any user to directly access all land searches needed in a conveyancing transaction, be it residential or commercial. A full range of searches is available including direct links to the Land Registry, Land Charges, Companies House, local authorities, the coal, water and mining authorities and the British Geological Survey.

Once a particular property has been identified on the computer, a search is instigated by clicking “submit” on the screen. The request for the search is acknowledged electronically and the user can walk away from the computer knowing that any searches are being processed.

The filling out of paper forms, the drawing of cheques and the reliance upon manual delivery and processes, have all been eliminated from the process. Searches are instigated in a matter of minutes and all from one visit to the computer.

The system was designed and organised by HM Land Registry but has crucially been set up with the ongoing and intensive involvement of solicitors. Alsters, along with two other Bristol firms, Cartwrights and Wards, has been involved in the setting up of the system over the past two years. Between them the firms identified 80 requirements for the system which have all been incorporated by the designers.

Because of the involvement of law firms in the design and implementation of the system, it is naturally solicitor-friendly and the computer seems to be speaking the profession's language.

The use of this electronic system has drastically cut the time taken to get search results. And the system has become steadily quicker as the pilot proceeds. Ultimately, the service should produce instant results at the time of the search.

I see a tremendous contrast between searches carried out for the Bristol pilot and those carried out for other areas under the conventional method. Compared to the new NLIS system, the old method feels laborious and unnecessarily time-consuming. Under the NLIS system, transactions which otherwise would be waiting on searches are significantly sped up.

A great deal of research is currently being carried out in order to find new ways of improving the conveyancing process, and electronic conveyancing could certainly make a key contribution to a better future.

The system of property transfer in England and Wales does have its benefits but there are considerable disadvantages which must be overcome. One of the greatest criticisms of the current conveyancing system is the delay factor. These delays can cause misunderstandings and frustrations, often putting the whole transaction in jeopardy.

The NLIS system is not, of course, the panacea for all the problems which might be encountered. Nevertheless, it does serve to show that one potential cause of delay, namely the receipt of searches, can be overcome electronically. Hopefully it will act as a catalyst to expedite other aspects of the conveyancing process.

The NLIS system enables deals to be struck earlier because of the speed of the search and the certainty this gives to a client involved in a transaction. The client can choose exactly when the searches are carried out and can even ask for a search before making an offer if there is some aspect of the deal about which the client has particular concerns.

The NLIS pilot scheme can be seen as a forerunner to the general acceptance and use of a system of electronic conveyancing. There are still, however, a number of additions and improvements which need to be made. There will be fine tuning and modifications. This is only the beginning, but it is, without doubt, a very important beginning.